tv White House Press Secretaries on the Press the Presidency CSPAN February 21, 2018 12:14am-1:07am EST
i felt the life of other people, just people pulling me in, all the intense prayers. the second i got sick, my whole community got together in the chapel and prayed like marathon runners for me. part of it was then reflecting back to me love and also the inse that by hope was that was having to make preparations that someone or something meets me there, and i certainly felt that way. >> white house press secretary sarah sanders and former white house press secretary mike mccurry talked about the relationship between the press and the presidency. this was hosted by the white house correspondents association. it is 50 minutes.
our esteemed panel here. marthayou know how great is, but let me take a moment to thank her for all that she does for us in terms of her scholarship and her research. she is a constant resource for all of us who cover the white house and for any of the american public who is interested in the presidency, the operations inside that building. i also want to thank the white house historical association for your generosity and your support of our programs and of martha's work and of all of our study and common interest in the presidency. before i turn things over to martha, to mention that last was at thewhca truman library for what we hope will be the first update partnerships and events with presidential libraries and
museums across the country talking with americans outside of the beltway and answering her questions about the presidency, the press, and the interaction between the two. we got a ton of questions and a .on of interest we just wanted to let all of you to comet if you want us to your hometown, let us know. we will get to work on it. none offurther ado -- these people need any introduction, but i will turn it over to martha. thank you all for coming tonight. [applause] martha: thank you very much, margaret. i really appreciate it. i am the director of the white house transition project, which is the cosponsor with the correspondents association.
we arewe are a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization of political scientists who study the presidency, who study the white house, and prepare information for people coming into the white house. the executive director of the white house correspondents association and margaret have done a great deal. [applause] martha: working together for the president's program, but also working together for access to information and getting what they think the public needs. i would also like to thank terry sullivan, who is the executive director of the white house transition project, who worked on event preparation as well. is aenesis of the panels belief out there that the briefing is a place where reporters get all of their
a lot of people think that it is useless. we are going to show the many iss in which the briefing important to reporters. it is important to the public, and important to the president as well. in the first panel, we have sarah sanders and mike mccurry, who will talk about ea secretary and the role of the briefing and presshe role of the secretary. then there is going to be a panel of reporters who are going to talk about where they get their information, so that you can see it is more than just the briefing, and the reporters will peter baker of "the new york times," steve holland of reuters , margaret, as president of the
alexis from and "the hill" will moderate that. let's begin. in looking at the briefing, let's start with you, mike, because you brought the televised briefing. why did you bring television cameras in, and what did you see briefing? e for a reporters,seful to to staff, and also to the public? mccurry: craig: -- mr. the idea that the president has someone on his or her behalf every day to stand up and be accountable and answer questions and sometimes they are vigorous and not exactly the questions the white house wants to hear a really, that is
important process. i want to put you on the spot. they are not the enemy of the people. they are a critical part of the way in which we come to understand what is our government really trying to do each and every day, but to your i worked at the state department in the first two years of the clinton administration. , andd televised briefings they said they do not televised and i said that was changewhy don't we just the rules. that was fine up until monica lewinsky. [applause] : i think some of the
folks here will remember i wish that i had put in place a rule that we had at the state department, which is you do not live broadcast these things because they are raw material for journalists who are trying to gather information about the white house. they are not news events. >> [inaudible] mr. mccurry: well, it is treated now as an entertainment product on cable television, and that is not what the white house briefing was supposed to be. it is a briefing. you get this information. reporters, many of you here, go check that against other sources, and then you report and give us, the american people, a more valid report. when it becomes a wide tv production every day, it becomes
something else than what a briefing is supposed to be, so i very much regret that i did not put some restrictions on how that briefing would happen every wouldhich, simply said, i bar until it is after -- until after it is over. you cannot put it on life. you can report after, but it would have been a different kind of event if it had not been sort of a theater production every day. i regret that mistake, but the cat is out of the barn on that. it is not going to change. you are going to have to go live every day. that's the way it is. part of it is a change in the media, a change in the immediacy , and it is a part of the change, but, remember, as my "daddy, youinds me,
were a big shot, but it was, like, in the last century." [laughter] is rightry: and she about that. we did not have facebook, twitter, all the things you handle now, so we were in a different environment. if i had thought it through more carefully, i think i would have established different ground rules and different ways in which people could assess the information they get in that briefing because it has become something it should not be if we are interested in just giving the public informed about what are the critical things that they need to know about the president's decisions on the white house. that is not a popular view among some of you here, i know, but that is the way i think about it. ms. sanders: that's right. i'm not used to being the most popular person in the room.
long would not have taken before it did go live. we had good rules at the state department, which is that you did not go live with it until after the briefing was over, etiquette journalists -- a chanceve journalists to assess what was newsworthy that came out of this the people needed to know, but now it is theater. you have to perform every day. you always looked very good. i like the pearls. sarah: thank you. mike: it is theater, and it is not a briefing. that concerns me a lot. we need more transparency and more access to information, and more of the public hearing what needs to happen -- it is fine, c-span is here tonight, and we love them because they actually take the briefing and put it on late at night, so if someone
wanted to see the whole briefing, they could see the whole briefing, but it was not this kind of matter tete-a-tete -- is kind of -- this kind of rat-a-tat-tat stuff that goes on now. martha: what do you think of the briefing, for letting the president know what is important, what can't be avoided, what the priorities are, in some ways it is a warning system so that having the president watch the briefing lets him know what is going on. did president clinton watch it? mike: thankfully not. but i will turn it over to sarah because i think our president is more attuned to it. martha: sarah, what do you think the uses of the briefing being?
sarah: my experience is obviously a little bit different than mike's. i agree that i think the purpose of the briefing, particularly how it was originally intended is meant to inform the public. by way, informing the public, but two, informing the press to further disseminate information. i think it is a useful tool, and i do agree that a lot of times, the theatrics of it take away from the news component. i think most people at home don't care about a lot of the issues we spent was that our time talking about in the briefing. i have said that before and i am sure it is not going to be a popular answer here, but a lot of times we have topics that are -- make for better tv than they do for informing the policy and the substance of what is actually taking place at the white house.
if there was a way to have more substance in the briefing, i do think it would be better for the american people. i know that, to echo the point mike made -- when the cameras were off, there was a brief period -- i'm not advocating for the cameras going off, there is transparency and having them on, but i can tell you the amount of substance was much higher and the type of questions and the tone of the questions was very different in a time period from our administration where the cameras were off than on days they are on. again, i am not advocating we turn them off because i agree there is something nice for the american public to be able to see that interaction. but i do think if we had a little more substance it would benefit all of us a little bit. suddenly from the white house perspective and the media would benefit from it because i think
there are a lot of serious journalists and reporters who showed to work every day and actually try to put out good information. i think if there was more of that exchange and more substance discussed, then it would benefit both sides a lot better. mike: the quick point on that, in the history of televised briefings -- it began with carter in the 1970's during the hostage crisis. he first allowed to televised briefings at the state department, and they developed a practice where there would be a live briefing, and reporters with gather on that ground session. it was a little artificial, people could tell who is doing
the briefing and who is the senior administration official doing the briefing. but there was a way to get the public information that they needed to have that was not consumed in this theater -- the televised briefing. i wish -- part of it is, you have got to have an administration committed to respect the role of the free press. you cannot have a president who declares them to be the enemy and goes out and describes them as fake news everyday. that does not create the environment which we have to exchange where talking about. part of that is political theater. if we can get away from political theater and get to the idea that the public has the right to know, they have a right to know what the government is doing, and there needs to be access to the information that
we need to have. there needs to be different ways of conveying that information. life televised briefing at the white house is not -- it may be entertainment for cable television news in the afternoon, but it may not be the best way to get the public information they need. as long as you are working to get critical information in front of the public and working with reporters and asking about this reporter that reporter, sometimes many of you here in the audience don't even go to the briefing because you say, that is not the best use of my time. the best use of my time is actually doing the work of reporting, that i need to do day in and day out. if you are working with them in creating an environment in which you are helping them get access to the information they need, then i think we end up in a better place at the and of the day. i am not try to be critical. martha: one of the things that
you all did particularly, and i would say in the first six months or nine months of the administration -- was to have briefings by administration officials and have them come in to the briefing room. so reporters and the briefing room could ask questions and it was not televised. those were very informative sessions and ones where i thought that a team of reporters came. they all knew it was an opportunity, whether it was an opportunity to talk to mcmaster, tillerson, mcunchin. there was a lot of information in those briefings, and they still do some, but they are in a low-key, but information rich.
sarah: it is interesting about that up, we still do a number of those, but we have people who come in the front and of the re-think, and we can get that information out there. what is incredibly interesting, because those are very policy driven, it is interesting that rarely do all of the cable networks cover that first part of the briefing. on most occasions when i come in, i will do an opening, and then i will introduce a cabinet level official or subject matter expert, and the cables will cut away and don't come back until the q&a, and that is the point i am making, it echoes exactly what mike is saying. we have lost the purpose of what the briefing was intended to be. it meant to inform the public and inform reporters so they
could further informs the public. we are getting further and further away from the component, particularly where the more substantial parts of the briefing are the least covered. those are not the pieces you see plate over again, and they are rarely covered at all in the front end of the briefing, and that is a real missed opportunity by the press, but i also think it is a disservice to the american people and i think that is why you will see some frustration from this administration. we could not support or be bigger advocates of the first amendment -- but there's a root level of responsibility of being a journalist -- there is a level of responsibility when it comes to being a journalist, and the purpose of what the to do their jobs, there are a handful of people that i don't think are as responsible with that information. i think that can be very inaccurate at times, and put out
misleading information, and i do think that is problematic. one of the other problems you see -- anybody with a phone or computer will call themselves reporters. i think that is a challenge that actual journalists have to fight with. we have a lot of people who applied for passes to come to the press briefing that may not actually have a true outlet that they are rain, but we allow all individuals to come in and ask questions. i think that is a challenge that reporters are fighting between real reporters and real journalists and people who may have a blog, and those two things, that is a blurry line between them. i think the real news component gets lost in the shuffle.
mike: i want to comment on that, i believe -- i did the same thing, we actually did these briefings, and martha, you may remember this on foreign trips. we bring in historians, wet no connection to the white house, but had knowledge of the countries we are visiting with the g8 or something like that, and we would bring them in. after confess, for me it was stalling, because i had to answer some questions i knew, but the real questions at the briefing every day -- but -- at the end of the day, we knew we had to be accountable and we had to go out there and we had to deal with the press everyday. you cannot do this job in an environment in which you are belligerent and saying we are at war with these people every day in the media.
sarah: i don't think i said anything similar to that. mike: no you haven't, and you get great credit for being amicable, but your president has got to change the way he talks about the media. he has to. it is critical to how we hold our glue together and how our democracy functions. he is creating an environment that is hard for people to do this transaction. of getting the public the information they need to have and for us to go out and do the job that we need to do, which is to take the hard questions, to get beat up by the press, which i understand -- that is part of the job, but it has to come from some level of respect that there is a critical role. the comments of the president
sometimes do not seem to respect the critical relationship. sarah: it is a two-way street. there is a level of respect that could be brought from the press, as well. the idea that you would lay the blame at the feet of the president is far-fetched. he is not popular in this room, but we do our best to present information that the press does not care about. they don't care about the information we are putting out there and would rather talk about the palace intrigue stories. mike: i know, but that isn't this similar -- that isn't dissimilar from what i went through.
sarah: 93% of the coverage of the president is negative. mike: 93% of what he has done, people have questions about. sarah: when he was doing well, there were a lot of success stories and you had positive news to talk about and only 10% of the time, it was covered. there should be a level of frustration. mike: i had that frustration. sarah: be glad that your numbers were better. mike: well, if you think bill clinton had a great -- martha: there was a fair share of scandals he had to weather. mike: if you thought that bill clinton had the liberal press on his side, i wish they had shown up more often and been supportive.
sarah: this tension between the press in the white house is always existed. mike: the difference is that we understood that they were the fourth estate and we have to deal with them because they are the conduit with which we keep the american people and informed. for better or worse, and some days was worse, rather than better. sarah: we did not declare war on them. mike: you did and that is a difference and you need to roll that back. the president has to. martha: a thing the president has been doing is speaking regularly to the press. mike: he is more accessible in exchanges.
you are a master data analyst and he has probably been more accessible van obama and bush. martha: and clinton, in that first year, before you got there. mike: you mean when we got in our battles? martha: the jefferson memorial, he would stop. reporters got him. president trump does a lot of short ones. mike: that is the form now. how many press conferences do you do is artificial, compared to your measure of when do you interact with the press.
sarah: this argues the point you are making that, if you don't have somebody who is being accessible and being held accountable by the press, but he spent as much time interacting with the press as he does and it is hard to argue he isn't open to answering questions and being held accountable and i think that is a difference and a thing that is regularly left out of conversations. he interacts with the press often and he often interacts with the american public in a variety of different ways and that didn't exist when you were in office and makes things different and makes it hard to compare administration to administration because we are dealing with things that did not exist when you were in office and the comments on twitter and facebook from both sides create a different element, a different environment, and makes it hard
to compare the administrations. mike: she made an important point that the job i had in the 1990's versus her job is different because of social media and the immediacy of the 24-7 things. we could plan a news cycle with a rhythm and sarah has 24-7 and it probably keeps her up. sarah: some from reporters and some from the president. mike: the job is different and we have seen changes in the way the media covers the white house. i keep saying this to my friends in the media and many of them
are here. this competition in the business model of journalism has been how fast can you break a story and who can get that breaking news the fastest and i wish that would slow down to "who can get it right and substantive?" i have heard all of this splatter across the internet, but i want to know where i can get the real truth about what is going on. this is in element of journalism that people would invest in. i may be naive about that, but i believe that we need to reinvent the business model for economics in journalism because a lot of you work for organizations that are plundering and going out of business and you aren't going to have jobs.
so, reinvent the profession and do something that will make a difference at the and of the day. sarah: so, to echo that, there is a race to be first and you have inaccuracies more often because of the level of speed and it goes to a point i was making about that level of speed so often and it was something that was meant to get out there quickly and it may not be accurate, but it drags news. the inaccuracies run on the front page and the correction is in the c-section. you don't see the real reporting coming through. mike: we also didn't have a
president who tweeted at 7:00. sarah: i can only imagine what the clinton administration with twitter would have looked like. mike: well, that is a good point. if we were a white house reporter, what would be better than to wake up and know exactly what is on the president's mind. you didn't have that with clinton or obama, but you have that with trump. you know what he is thinking about and what motivates him, for better or worse. personally, i think it is for the worse, but on the other hand, as a question of covering the white house and understanding what motivates the president, this guide gives you raw material that is unprecedented in the history of how we cover the white house, if you are a white house reporter.
you know, i will refrain from partisan comment about what i think of it, but you cannot claim that it is not giving you more transparency. sarah: it gives a lot more stories. martha: we know our president well. mike: as you know, when you are trying to develop things, it is hard to communicate it from the white house and develop consistent storylines that gets people engaged and you are getting this rabbit going off of the trail and you lose track of how you stay coherent.
that is a problem you have. in order to be coherent and to drive the central messages that are important and have to reinforce -- because people have to hear this over and again -- but the president sends out the rabbits on the trail and down the hole they go and you are off. martha: if the briefing has not provided the kind of information to reporters that you would want them to get and the messages you want them to get, you are available in many other ways to reporters and you bring in people and you serve as a facilitator to help reporters get information from people and, during the afternoon, you are always available to reporters.
can you talk about the way in which you inform reporters and the briefing is not accurate? can you talk about that. -- that? sarah: i think the briefing is one of the smaller ways we get information out and there are a number of people in the press staff who regularly talk and visit reporters around the room and walking through the details of a story or providing information on subject matter or facilitating talking to somebody in the administration that can go in depth on a policy and we do that a lot.
most of the time, i like to say the first thing that wakes me up is one of my kids or twitter, for that matter. it is usually around 5:00 in the morning with all the correspondence getting ready for hits or whatever else it may be with the news happening or they want more detailed information with what the president is doing or the follow-up from the night before. it starts early with the phone calls and it will not stop until the evening and we have seen that the fastest way to get information to a large number of reporters quickly is to use twitter and, last week, when the president made his statement regarding the tragedy in florida, i put that out from twitter because i knew that it
was the fastest way and there are a lot of different tools that we use to engage with the press and we do our best to make sure that we respond to questions and we may not have a lot of information, but we respond to them and the instruction i give is to respond back to a question, even if you don't have information list of i am the worst offender of not responding to emails because i will get pulled into meetings and there could be 200 or 300 emails have received that i have not responded to and getting through can be a challenge, but we have tried to use every tool
will available and i have an amazing team i have worked with that facilitates and handles a lot of the requests. >> on that point, there is another untapped resource of the federal government's and all of the agencies that we have and the people -- of the federal government and all of the agencies that we have. sarah: i have the book. mike: a very good book. he was a public information officer who worked in the federal government for a long time and there were a lot of people who work in the federal
government who have the job of keeping the public informed and i have thought about this a lot. a lot of the day to day reporting on the federal government goes through the white house and, if we could get that out to where the agencies are actually doing incredibly good work on behalf of the american people and we should put a spotlight on that. if we could figure how to do that, that would be to everyone's benefit. it is letting those people talk. they are all cowered because of the white house, but there are a lot of good people with access to information and that -- martha: i wonder, in terms of information that you are going
to provide, where the president comes in for the briefing. you see him before the briefing. how many times a day do you see him and does he tell you what to say and how to say it? sarah: no two days are alike and it will depend what happens with the news of the day. i will try to make sure i have answers and i do not sometimes ask all the questions that they later asked and it is a lot of things specific to his thinking and reaction and i will get beat up for not asking those questions, but it is hard to know what they will ask and knowing all of the things i
should check on before i go out. again, we try to do the very best job that we can. sometimes, it is from the president and it is sometimes from other members of the administration. if we know there is a legislative drive or legislative session coming that day and we will meet with the affairs team to walk through some questions we think are coming to get a better idea of the background of the process. the news of the day can really determine the individuals that we talk to and meet with and try to involve in briefings, but there are a couple of instances where i have not spoken to the president and i tried to speak to him before the briefing every day.
it can vary, depending on the day. martha: do you hear from him after the briefing? mike: does he watch? sarah: sometimes, not always. mike: if he had watched mine, i would have been a dead man. are you cleared into everything top-secret, fbi? sarah: i am not allowed to talk about the security clearances. it has been a hot topic lately. mike: look, i mean, -- sarah: you can answer, but i won't answer myself. mike: a judicious answer. martha: we are coming to the end. mike: this is a critical point. i was in the room with all of the secrets in the basement.
martha: there is another room in the basement? mike: at the state department, it is the operation center. so, i would go and i would read the intelligence digest and the daily brief and i didn't have access to that at first and i had to kind of tell sandy berger that i need to read this and i'm not going to say anything, but i need to not screw up by saying something is red when it is grey. that is a fatal thing for a press secretary, saying something that ends up being true. sarah: i know nothing about that, mike. mike: i know. this is a critical thing, protecting this.
i want to make a point about this. clinton was good about this and would sometimes say, get mike in here for this meeting because he needs to hear what we are talking about. he didn't expect me to have an opinion or go and talk about it, but he wants me to understand the contours of a debate to make sure i knew what i was deciding and that is critical for a press secretary. martha: do you have that kind of access? sarah: i do. the chief of staff has been good about ringing me in if there is going to be a meeting that has a lot of press interest and i have been in the room when the president goes on the hill and i am a part of those meetings there because we know there will be interest and it is easier to answer questions if you can say
you are in the room and i agree that the access is incredibly important and i have not had any moments, so far, where it has been a point of contention. >> you keep at it. >> he has not kicked me out yet. martha: the president tweeted to have a reflective president's day. i wondered about the presidents you served and what they learned. mike: i was not there. he totally screwed up the first two years. sarah: right until mike showed up.
mike: no, no, but i came in after he got hammered in the midterm election. you may have the opportunity to deal at that. sarah: our numbers are pretty good. mike: we reconfigure the white house and leon panetta came in. i was at the state department. there was a learning curve about how to communicate. my point is that it was the last century and we had so many fewer challenges on how to communicate them what this poor lady has to deal with, day in and out, in terms of the news cycle. if we could get journalists who are here to slow it down and let people -- there is not a big closet at the
white house that is a truth closet where you open it up and there is the truth. and we have to work as reporters, in some ways, as press secretaries. go, this secretary said that, this secretary said that, and figure out what the truth is and how we accumulate the information and get it. fitzwater wrote that the greatest challenge of being press secretary is verification -- how do you make sure that what you go out and say is true, and how do you work the government and different sources to make sure that you know that is true? we have unlimited access to sources because we can call and say, what is going on about this? or we can read whatever we need to read. sarah: sometimes, that goes that
-- better than others. mike: as long as we steer ourselves towards telling the truth -- i got in trouble one time for saying sometimes you have to tell the truth slowly because you can't tell everything you know, but have to keep it going towards the truth and away from falsehood. that is your challenge. martha: so, what do you think the president has learned in the past year about communication? sarah: one of the things he talked about when we were actually in davos a month ago was a difference from approaching things as a businessman versus as a
president. that is a shift. as a businessman, the way you process information and you can make a decision and execute it quickly, and in a lot of cases, very unilaterally, is different han making decisions as a president. you have to work within the confines of government, which can be slow and difficult versus in business where it can move a lot faster. that was one of the things you talked about in a public way that took more time to work through. i think that is one of the things we have learned over the last year as an illustration -- as an administration. martha: thank you both. time has way passed. sarah: stick around. you introduced the next panel with the reporters letting us know where they are getting
their information from, and i like to know the information because of the sources that come from a lot of stories. i am interested. if you could drop names, that is perfectly ok. [laughter] sarah: i think it is off the record, so you are safe. feel free to be an open book and share as much as possible, as much as you feel comfortable with. we may not have achieved the white flag of surrender, but sarah is at least showing that she is trying to work it through, and it is a tough thing because when the tone gets a set -- thepresident, the one president will have to be the one who changes the vocabulary. you are doing what you need to. martha: the position of press secretary is the second most difficult staff job after chief you of staff. mike: by the way --
martha: you have the four constituents, the president, the staff, the press, and the public. meeting all of those is very tough. mike: you know that office is a great office, and there is a back door and a front door. out the back door, you turn right and you are in the office, the front door you are in the briefing room. it is the metaphor. you are halfway between the two groups. sarah: right. people don't use the back door. i am like, why not? it's because all the reporters lined up in the hall. the back door is a free shot to the other side of the building. i don't know why it isn't utilized more.